What is Grad School Life Like?

<p>So I'm currently a junior in undergrad and I'm thinking about trying to get a Phd in Psychology. My question is, what is grad life like socially and academically? Is it very different from undergrad?</p>


<p>I'm in an interdisciplinary psychology PhD program right now; I just finished my second year.</p>

<p>Academically, graduate school is very different from undergrad. In undergrad, your primary focus was very clear-cut - your classwork. Get good grades in your classes, and everything else was more or less peripheral. In graduate school, the standards for achievement are much more ambiguous. No one cares if you get an A in class because you are supposed to get As. Classes, in fact, are the more or less peripheral concern of the degree. Out of the 5-6 (or more) years you spend getting your degree, you'll only spend roughly two years on the coursework, and you're expected to do the minimum necessary to pass through them successfully.</p>

<p>Your real focus will be on your research, and in that sense, graduate school can be isolative. I think psychology can be less so because we work with people - both in the sense that we study them (unless you're interested in animal behavior) and in the sense that we tend to group in labs and research groups instead of doing independent work. Our work is collaborative and single authorship is rare. So you generally will interact with other students and professors/researchers more than, say, a student in the humanities.</p>

<p>Still, I think one of the hardest transitions from undergrad to grad was realizing that the things that were most expected of me were unwritten and that I was expected to find them out myself. The doctoral student handbook tells you the bare minimum of what you need to do to get your degree. It says nothing about research, publication, conferences presentations, networking, attending workshops, doing internships, building skills, writing writing writing, or even how to complete a dissertation. There's no map to say if you do this this this you will be successful in your doctoral program. And yet if you are not doing these things, you will be considered unsuccessful in the program. So I'd advise you that if you haven't already, hone your investigative skills and your skills at picking up nonverbal/tacitly emitted cues.</p>

<p>The classes are far more time-consuming than undergrad, and graded differently (usually you'll have one or two papers. If it's a stats class you may have tests, or you may just have a presentation and/or paper at the end). It's in your best interests to write about your labwork or your dissertation topic, once you have it, in those papers. Don't use the classes to pursue something new because you'll be wasting time; everything you write in class should be useful in some other avenue (a paper for publication, the lit review of your dissertation, something you can revise into something you can use later).</p>

<p>Socially - it can get lonely. You're busy all the time, but your friends and relatives who are not in academia think grad school is just an extension of college, so they don't understand what exactly you are doing all the time. I've also found that they tend not to understand what "unwritten rules" means - for instance I'll tell my fiance I "have" to go to something and he doesn't get that no, I'm not required to go per se, not going is not going to stop me from getting the PhD - but it's in my best interests to go and if I don't I will be looked down upon. I've found it useful to frame grad school in terms of a job with flexible hours to my family - even if you're not necessarily employed by your university, non-academics tend to understand "I've got to go to work" better than "well I've got this paper to write and I need to show my face in the lab for X hours. What? No, I don't <em>have</em> to - like I won't get kicked out, but..."</p>

<p>Socially, I'd say it's also a lot easier to get caught up in grad school 24/7 and isolate yourself. You <em>really</em> need to resist the urge to do that, because you will go insane. When you move to your new area, you need to set up a hobby or something that you like to do outside of graduate school, even if it's as simple as inviting friends over to play Wii on Thursday nights. You need the relief time, you need time thinking about other non-essential things so that you don't burn out and so you can have a fresh mind when you DO need to do school things. Balance is really important. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't have a social life or a nightlife in graduate school. Of course you won't have it at the same level as someone with a 9-5, but you can be a successful graduate student AND not kill yourself in the process. Take breaks. Give yourself one day off each week (even if it's Wednesday). Say no. Don't schedule more than you can handle even if you think it'll make you look good. Colleagues and advisors respect people with boundaries.</p>

<p>Also, financials. You will be poor. Accept it, embrace it, love it. What you'll be able to do is going to be based a lot on how much you make, but in general graduate students have to have roommates (unless you have wealthy parents who are willing to donate money to your rent fund, or a significant other), they have to eat in more than they eat out, they have to wear last season's clothes, they have to have their ends or color grow out wildly every now and then. Of course, everyone has their splurges. When I was in undergrad on full scholarship I used to get my hair done once or twice a month. Now I get it done every two months (just to maintain the chemical relaxer) and I wash it at home (although I do buy expensive shampoo!), and I think my highlights start at my ears now, lol. I love to eat out, but I limit myself to a couple times a month. I live in an unglamorous neighborhood in New York, but at least I have to take more than 5 steps to get across my apartment. I wash my clothes often so I don't need as many. You find free or cheap things to do - lots of movies, lots of picnics at the park, lots of potluck dinner parties with friends. It's a sacrifice, but it's for a relatively small chunk of your life - 5 years isn't that long a time in the grand scheme of things, particularly when it can lead to a very rewarding and lovely career for the next 40.</p>

<p>Wow, thanks for taking the time to write such an in-depth response. You're awesome.</p>

<p>What julliet said.</p>

<p>I agree 100% on comparing grad school to a job with flexible hours. When my grandmother asked why couldn't I just pay for the PhD myself just so I can get in and go there. I said, "Well, think of it this way, I'm trying to get someone to offer me an acceptance worth $300,000+ and that's good for 5 years." That shut her up! :)</p>

<p>Regardless of who your friends are, everyone is going to be VERY busy. While academic folks will understand you the best, they're going to be busy all the time. While it's nice to have people outside of academia to keep your life balanced, they only have weekends free and they use it to take care of any chores or errands and have only so much free time (especially if they're married). So you need to be quite good at being by yourself.</p>

<p>Regarding finances, enjoy being poor. But with careful budgeting, you can do just fine. I've taught my family a lot about finances. My parents are just so impressed with how self-sufficient I am and am content with what I have. They can't imagine spending less than $100 a month on food but I do cook A LOT and don't go out for drinks often. I also don't eat meat. You'll learn where you can afford to splurge and where to skimp.</p>

<p>At the end of the day, I love my research and it's all worth it.</p>